James McQuarrie is a UK based Product Leader who helps teams discover, design, build and deliver digital products and services that delight their users.
Time and time again I get non-technical clients asking me to make sure that I design their web based product screens to reduce scrolling and to make sure I get as much as possible on each screen “above the fold”.
And time and time again I have to explain why there is no such thing as “the fold” online and why we should focus our efforts on designing for clarity and readability rather than worrying about how much scrolling a user will need to do.
The fold does not exist*.
The term “above the fold” is a print world term referring to making sure a newspaper’s headline or main front page image is visible when the paper is folded in half on a newsagent’s shelve.
In the world of digital, online publishing and products the term is used to describe the desire to make sure that the most important elements of each screen’s design were visible without the need for a user to scroll down “below the fold”. Which was an admirable aim and design philosophy back in a time when web design was still an emerging discipline.
We as designers had not learnt important principles like how navigation design and information hierarchy helps to orientate users within our content. Users weren’t used to having to scroll to interact with the web, in fact; users weren’t used to interacting with the web at all.
But, those days have past. Today we as designers know how to organise content, how to structure the information on a screen and, even more importantly, users have learnt to scroll.
I have never once sat observing a user during any usability testing and seen them give up the task in hand because they had to scroll a page. They may have not been able to find what they were looking for, or they may have not understood what to do next, but not once have they not known how to scroll.
In fact, one of the first things many of them do if they do get stuck is try to scroll to see if they are missing something, if there is more to see somewhere off screen. Often they will do that before using a site’s navigation menu if the labelling isn’t clear enough, “just checking if there’s a better option somewhere else.”
If you ask these same users whether they like scrolling, they will say no. “I don’t want to scroll to find things”, “I don’t like scrolling pages and pages to find something.” But when you observe them using a site or application scrolling does not hurt their progress as long as the page has been well designed.
What users say when asked abstract questions and how they behave while actually using something are not always the same.
Trying to explain this to a client can be hard. The no scrolling mantra has become universal law in the minds of those who do not design for screens daily. It is one of those mythical rules of web design that many a project manager will wheel out to show they know about the web when appropriate (another favourite, that is thankfully starting to die a death, is; “everything should be no more than 3 clicks away from the homepage” – remember that one?).
Explaining that we cannot control a user’s screen size, orientation or resolution goes some way to helping clients understand that the fold is at best a moving target. Explaining that not everyone browses with their browser window in full screen mode, or that some users have enough browser chrome to take over a third of the available window height also helps, but there is no silver bullet for changing people’s mind on this.
Sometimes I have to give in and reduce the line-height or padding or margin to fit that little bit more content on the screen for the client’s choice of browser / screen size combination.
It is their product and their choice.
I only hope that as more of us use smaller devices like smart phones and tablets to interact with the web and more of our web experience is touch driven making scrolling child’s play, more clients will let go of their believe that the fold exists and that scrolling is the root of all evil in the World.
*Okay, so the fold does exist to some degree. Not everything will always fit on a screen. And if you’re designing a page with minimal content, or designed purely as a hook to draw the user into a more in-depth process / engagement (think landing pages / sign up screens) it is worth trying to make as much of the content “above the fold” as possible on as many screen sizes as possible. But as with anything related to the web, to try and apply that rule universally to all content and use cases will not work. Be sensible and be guided by your content, its purpose, its audience and their needs.